Philippians 2:6, The Trinity, And Equality with God

Introduction

6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped” (ESV).

Many commentators believe this verse begins a hymn or poem of the early church (vs. 6-11). A few have debated Paul’s authorship. More importantly, this verse contains the word “equality” and is used by Trinitarians to teach that Jesus is equal to the Father.

Before “zooming in,” an important principle of biblical interpretation should be upheld. God’s Word only as meaning in context. The verse should not be interpreted in a vacuum independent of surrounding verses. It should incorporate the flavor from the preceding context.

Finally, this is written with the disposition that the exegetical form of interpretation is the best method of biblical interpretation. This method seeks to draw out the original meaning as intended by its authors and understood by its original audience.

Philippians 2:6a

 

Many Trinitarians are unaware that most verses used to support the doctrine of the Trinity are controversial. This can be from manuscript variants, lack of underlying punctuation, word ambiguity, textual variants, disputed interpretations, etc. In this verse, Trinitarians dispute the meanings of two words.


Here is the first half of this verse: “Who, though he was in the form of God” (ESV). Please notice the past tense of the word “was.” The NASB also used the past tense for this verb (“He existed”). However, in the underlying manuscripts, the verb “was” is a Greek present tense participle. Unless there is a special exception, translations should always reflect the NT Greek manuscripts. I was unable to uncover any legitimacy for the liberty that these translations took to change the verb into the past tense. The NKJV, however, is commended for using a present tense verb (“being”).


Several websites examined (both Biblical Unitarian and Trinitarian) support using a present tense here. Because the use of a past or present tense verb here is neutral to the larger question of equality with God, we will move on. However, this highlights a separate issue. Bible translations are made by scholars who make many translation decisions.


There remains important questions worth probing. To include, what does “form” mean, who is “God,” and what does the phrase mean (“Who, though he was [being] in the form of God”)?


Please observe that this phrase doesn’t say that Jesus is or was God, but “was” (or “being”) “in the form of God.” Existing “in the form of God” is very different than being the God the “form” represents. Being in the configuration of someone, is not being that actual person. Because Jesus is in the form of God, and not God Himself, this reason, among others, makes this verse difficult to interpret literally for Trinitarians.  


Secondly, the word “God” here describes the Father, as Jesus was not in the form of Himself: (“who, though he was in the form of God [Himself]”). The word “God” is found a second time in the verse confirming its the Father (“did not count equality with God”). The word “God” in the NT almost always is the Father (subject to context).

 

Some commentators attempt to “smooth out” the difficulty of Jesus existing in the form of God by claiming that this verse describe Jesus in His human state. But this explanation disregards the next two verses (same sentence) where Jesus goes on to take on human flesh (vs. 7-8).  Also, separately, Trinitarians claim that Jesus remained fully God while in the flesh, so this explanation is unacceptable.


The word “form” comes from the Greek word “morphe.” This word is interpreted as “form” in literal translations (NKJV, ASV, NASB). Because this word blocks Jesus from being God Himself (or an equal), the primary meaning of this word has been disputed by sincere Trinitarians committed to making Jesus equal to the Father.


Jesus never claimed to be Father. He retains his own identity just as a husband and wife are separate persons. A correct element of the Trinity is that the each person remains a distict individual. Therefore, Jesus is not the Father, and the Father is not Jesus.


In the next verse, the word “form” is used again.  Jesus is described as taking “the form of a servant [or slave].” Strikingly, Trinitarians don’t say that Jesus was a literal slave here, yet take the word “form” in verse six “(in the form of God”) to mean Jesus was God himself (or an equal).  


Any serious student of Scripture should avoid the temptation to use paraphrase translations as authoritative. This is because these translations were produced under a philosophy of translation where translators were allowed to inject into the text their subjective meanings of what they thought the authors intended.

 

For example, we don’t have to go farther than this verse to illustrate the theological partiality of translators. The NIV renders this phrase, “Who, being in very nature God.” But the translation of this verse is a perversion of the underlying Greek manuscripts which don’t contain the words “very nature.” The Apostle John could have easily written that Jesus was fully God, but didn’t.


Note: For a good book on principles of interpretation and the philosophy of different styles of translations, please consider the Trinitarian book, How to Read the Bible for All it’s Worth, by Douglas Stuart and Gordon D. Fee, (2014).


The meaning of the word “morph” (again) is disputed in this verse. Because many Biblical Unitarian websites cover the definition of this word in more depth (links are provided at the end), and there is no exegetical evidence for the use of the word “essence,” coverage here will be light. The word is found twice in the NT (without counting the disputed ending of Mark’s Gospel). The second NT use we covered in verse seven (“the form of a servant”).

 

In the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament version used by Jesus) this word is found six times (Job 4:16; Daniel 4:33, 5:6, 9, 10, 7:28). The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, concludes for the Septuagint, “The term always refers to the exterior, to that in man which may be seen.” (Emphasis is my own, Gerhard Kittel and Gerard Friedrich, 4.746, 1964, Logos Bible Software).


Because the word “form” is used only twice in the NT, and is difficult for Trinitarians, some have capitalized on this by claiming ambiguity for insertion of theological motivated interjections. The Word Biblical Commentary, Philippians writes, “In view of the objections to these four options, perhaps the best approach to the meaning of μορφή, ‘form,’ is (a) to admit that it is a word whose precise meaning is elusive…”

 

The problem is not that “the precise meaning is elusive,” it’s that it contradicts the fourth century (Roman Catholic Church) doctrine of the Trinity that was enforced with a sword for over 1000 years. Traditions are strong and the Reformation didn’t go far enough.

 

The book continues and goes on to conclude, “To say, therefore, that Christ existed ἐν μορφῇ θεοῦ, ‘in the form of God,’ is to say that outside his human nature Christ had no other manner of existing apart from existing ‘in the form of God,’ that is, apart from being in possession of all the characteristics and qualities belonging to God. This somewhat enigmatic expression, then, appears to be a cautious, hidden way for the author to say that Christ was God, possessed of the very nature of God” (Word Biblical Commentary, Philippians, Gerald Hawthorne and Ralph Martin, 2004, Olive Tree Bible Software, commentary on Philippians 2:6a).


Sadly, these authors resorts to eisegesis. With the addition of pre-suppositions, partiality, and preconceptions, the Bible supports any doctrine, including the Trinity. If “Christ was God” as these commentators believe, then Jesus prayed to Himself in the Garden, because both persons are really one person (Oneness or Modalism heresy).


Because there is no exegetical basis for hollowing out this word and inserting a theological meaning favorable to Trinitarianism, (thankfully), conservative translations (ESV, NASV, NKJV, etc.) have all retained the word “form.”


On the flip-side, (sadly), every Trinitarian Bible commentary consulted, in disregard of clear grammar, context, and word meaning, made Jesus fully God (at least implicitly), reflecting their Trinitarian disposition.


Because Trinitarian commentators cannot accept that being “in the form of God” is not being God Himself (or an equal), to follow are some clever justifications used by commentaries to disregarding the literal, grammatical, and contextual form of exegetical interpretation:


Käsemann, as we have noticed, was absolutely right in emphasizing that being ‘in the form of God’ is equivalent to being ‘equal with God.’ To go beyond this equivalence and inquire whether morphē tells us precisely in what respects Jesus is equal with God (in essence? attributes? attitude? appearance?) is asking too much from one word”  (Baker Exegetical Commentary, Philippians, Moises Silva, 101, 2nd edition, 2005, Logos Bible Software).

 

Commentary:

These same translators would claim to believe and use the exegetical form of biblical interpretation. But they throw good hermeneutics out the window to preserve their understanding of the deity of Christ [1] .It reminds me of politicians: “do as I say, not as I do.”

 

[1] Jesus Christ is divine based on the English dictionary meaning of this word (all divine beings are gods) and the range of meaning of the word “god” within the Old and New Testament.

 

Most dictionaries define the word “deity” with the understanding that all “gods” are divine, at least in some sense. Because Jesus was a God, or divine based on John 1:1 (see John 1:1 and the Trinity) and John 10:34-36, He doesn’t have to be equal to the Father to be divine.Tragically, Trinitarians assign a meaning to the word “deity” of their own making where Jesus has to be equal to the Father to be divine, inconsistent with the biblical usage of the word “god.”

 

In both the Old and New Testament, a word used for “god” (Old Testament: “elohim“; New Testament Greek: “theos“) applies to many good and evil gods. For example, angels are called “god,” so are judges, etc. So these are divine beings based on the biblical definition of the word “god.” Therefore, the title “God” assigned to Jesus in a few New Testament passages should be understood within the range of meaning for the word “god” and the historical and cultural meaning when written.


If we conclude that the form of God means the glory of God and that the glory of God is intimately related with the being of God, then we will also conclude that the phrase existing in the form of God points to Christ’s being in very nature God (TNIV)” (The Letter to the Philippians, G. Walter Hansen, 138, 2009).

 

Commentary:

This commentary is built on the premise, “If we conclude.” When we bring theological partiality to the Bible we can alter the inspired exegetical meaning. Secondly, “the glory of God” comes from taking verses that describe the Father and applying the same glory to the Son. But it’s wrong to steal glory from the Father who is not Jesus. Jesus taught that He was the Son of God not, “God the Son.”  Jesus said, “46 not that anyone has seen the Father except he who is from God; he has seen the Father” (John 6:46). Please observe that Jesus is “He who is from God.” This means He is not almighty God Himself. This distinction between Jesus and God (the Father) is a common thread throughout the Bible.


The expression does not refer simply to external appearance but pictures the preexistent Christ as clothed in the garments of divine majesty and splendour. He was in the form of God, sharing God’s glory. ἐν μορφῇ θεοῦ thus corresponds with Jn. 17:5 (‘the glory I had with you before the world began’) and reminds one of Heb. 1:3 (‘the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being’)” (The epistle to the Philippians, Peter T. O’Brien, 211, 1991).

 

Commentary:

Philippians 2:6 doesn’t state (or anywhere in the Bible) that Christ was existing in “God’s glory.” John 17:5 doesn’t state that Jesus had the same glory as His Father: “5 And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.” Trinitarian teach that Jesus remained fully God during His incarnation. If so, He would have had His own glory as almighty God in the flesh. Secondly, this glory happened when Jesus was in the presence of His Father. This means this glory originated from the Father and not Himself.  So before He took on flesh, He was in the Father’s presence to receive it.

 

Mr. O’Brien quotes in part this verse: “3 He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power…” (Hebrews 1:3a). Jesus “is the radiance of the glory of God,” but not God Himself. Thankfully, the verse continues to explain how this is possible: “and the exact imprint of his nature.” It’s necessary to consider a word as Trinitarian translators add more than is stated.

 

The ESV has the words “exact imprint.” This is is not an exact translation, but an exaggeration. There is only one word in the Greek (“charaktēr”). According to A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature (BDAG), 3rd edition (2001), the possible meanings for this word are:  “impress,” “reproduction,” “representation,” “trademark,” “reproduction,” “representation,” “distinctive mark,” “outward aspect,” “outward appearance,” or “form” (1078). So which one of these is the correct meaning? None of these were sufficient for the Trinitarian ESV. They had to add (again) one more word to portray Jesus as equal to God Almighty (Yahweh). The correct word should be decided by the context. The context doesn’t state that Jesus is God, but presents Him as “appointed” (v. 2), (subordinate).

 

In fact, in the next verse (same sentence), Jesus is described, “4 having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.” The phrase, “having become as much superior to angels” reflects something that was not a previous reality. Jesus was promoted by God after his death and resurrection (Philippians 2:8-9; Acts 2:32-33; Hebrews 1:9, 2:9). Someone who is all knowing, all powerful, and almighty GOD above all, cannot seemingly “inherit” anything greater, because he already has it all. Jesus is contrasted as someone elevated higher than angels and not someone who was/is fully God (absolute sense). So the context forbids the ESV and other Trinitarian translations from exaggerating (“exact imprint”) God’s Word (Hebrews 1:3).


Jesus Christ is in very nature God. The Greek word translated ‘nature’ (or‘form;’ Greek morphe) appears in the New Testament only here, in 2:7, and in Mark 6:12. It was generally used to describe the way objects appear to the human senses. Yet scholars attest that Paul must have used it with a deeper meaning to describe the outward manifestation corresponding to and expressing the inward essence. Having the form of God means Christ expressed the very nature and character of God. In Jesus, we see what God is like” (Life Application Commentary, Philippians Colossians and Philemon, Bruce B. Barton, 57, 1995).

 

Commentary:

We covered the Greek word “form” (an outward manifestation) and it doesn’t mean “nature.” So the reference in Mark is a different word that the commentator is covertly working into the verse. Of course Trinitarian “scholars attest” a “deeper meaning” that involves “inward essence.” But if we want the true, unfiltered, and raw truth from God’s word, it doesn’t matter what scholars think. The pure truth from the Bible should define our theological framework of who Jesus is in relation to His Father.


On the basis of Christ’s resurrection and ascension, his earliest followers had come to believe that the One whom they had known as truly human had himself known prior existence in the ‘form’ of God—not meaning that he was ‘like God but really not’ but that he was characterized by what was essential to being God. This understanding (correctly) lies behind the NIV’s in very nature God” (Philippians, Gordon D. Fee 93, 1999).

Commentary:

The early Christians, based on the non-canonized writings of the Ante-Nicene Fathers (100-325 AD), were not Trinitarians. While they had different views of God, they didn’t believe in a Triune God (doctrine of the Trinity was non-existence). Sometimes they called Jesus “God” which was consistent with the cultural and biblical usage of the word “god” that applied to many divine beings.

Philippians 2:6b

 Here are three literal translations of 2:6b:


“[Jesus] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped” (ESV).
“[Jesus] did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped” (NASB).
“[Jesus] did not consider it robbery to be equal with God” (NKJV).


The word in dispute is the Greek word “harpagmos” (ESV and NASB: “grasped;” NKJV: “robbery”). Whatever this word means, it did not happen, because the adverb “ου”̓ precedes it in the Greek, which negates it. To reflect this, please observe that the translations above contain the words “did not.”


One way to grasp the significance of this negation is to read the phrase without it and understand that this is not what happened: “[Jesus] did count equality with God a thing to be grasped.” But the opposite reading is correct: “did not count equality with God.” By implication, it sure appears it could have happened (inconsistent with Trinitarianism). Consequently, Jesus is the role model of humility to emulate who “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped.”

 

If Jesus already had equality with God, why does the Bible commend Jesus for not taking this action? Secondly, because equality with God did not happen, Trinitarians need to stop reading more into this verse than exegetical stated.


This Greek word “harpagmos” (ESV: “grasped;” NKJV: “robbery”) is not found in additional passages of the New Testament, or in the Greek Septuagint. The meaning then should be obtained from secular writings of the same time period (to understand how people back then understood this word).


The most respected biblical Greek lexicon of our day is probably A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature (BDAG). This lexicon, like all mainline Hebrew and Greek dictionaries/lexicons is composed by Trinitarian scholars. For this word, they write, “rare in non-biblical Greek; not found at all in the Greek translations of the the Old Testament; in our literature only in Philippians 2:6” (133).


BDAG continues and assigns three possible meanings for this word. But a closer examination reveals that the last two categories of meanings are from similar, but different words. To follow is their first meaning in full:


① a violent seizure of property, robbery (s. ἁρπάζω; Plut., Mor. 12a; Vett. Val. 122, 1; Phryn., Appar. Soph.: Anecd. Gr. I 36. Also Plut., Mor. 644a ἁρπασμός), which is next to impossible in Phil 2:6 (W-S. §28, 3: the state of being equal with God cannot be equated with the act of robbery)” (133).

 

My bold letters above highlight an important point. This Lexicon has decided that the only meaning for this word available from secular sources cannot be used. The reason stated exposes their extraordinary bias. Since they believe that Jesus was already equal to the Father, they write, “the state of being equal with God cannot be equated with the act of robbery” (133). Additionally, their reasoning collides with the adverb “οὐ” (ESV: “did not”) that we discussed.


Please notice that the justification provided by BDAG is strictly theological. It’s not because the word contradicts Scripture; it’s that the word, when used, indicates that Jesus did not commit “robbery” (ESV: “grasp”) to be equal with God. This meaning contradicts their Trinitarian understanding of Jesus. Because “harpagmos” outside the Bible consistently has the same meaning (robbery or some kind of “violent seizure“), they have decided to throw out  “harpagmos” from God’s inspired word and exchange it for two possible counterfeits (not same word) that are more friendly to their theology.

 

The NKJV Insertion of the word “It”

 

You probably noticed that both the ESV and NASB are similar (Jesus didn’t grasp equality). However, the NKJV has a very different interpretation that says that Jesus was already equal to God: “did not consider it robbery to be equal with God.”  

 

After research, the word “it” in bold letters above is a theological motivated addition to make Jesus already possessing equality with God. This word was used in the first English New Testament published in 1526 (Tyndale Bible). Here is their interpretation: “6 Which beynge in the shape of god and thought it not robbery to be equall with god.” The word “it” was copied into the 1611 KJV. The NKJV retained this illegitimate word. One added word changed the entire meaning of this verse! Please read it with and without the word “it” and ponder the theological implications:

did not consider it robbery to be equal with God” (NKJV).

did not consider [omitted] robbery to be equal with God” (NKJV).


Based on the NKJV interlinear, the words “consider it” come from the single Greek word “ἡγέομαι.” While the word “consider” is within the range of meaning for this word, the addition of “it” is not.

 

Two other translations were consulted (NASB, LEB), they don’t includes the word “it” for the Greek word “ἡγέομαι” and they accurately portray Jesus as not having already been equal with God and not grasping for equality:


did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped” (NASV).
did not consider being equal with God something to be grasped” (LEB).

 

The Trinitarian book, Putting Jesus in His Place, has this commentary, “The rendering ‘did not consider it robbery to be equal with God’ (nkjv, following the kjv), which has the least support among biblical scholars today, would mean that Christ was equal with God and did not think that he had taken that status wrongfully. The more common rendering ‘did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped’ (nasb; cf. niv, net, esv) would mean that the preexistent divine Christ did not try to seize recognition of his rightful status of equality with God, but chose to put the glory of the Father and the salvation of sinners ahead of his own glory” (Robert Bowman, 84, 2007).

 

It’s interesting that Mr. Bowman concedes that the NKJV has little support for its interpretation. But sadly, he continues and pretends that this verse teaches that Jesus was already equal to the Father (“his rightful status of equality with God”).


The following concluding quotes from Trinitarian scholars illustrate theological motivated conclusions for Philippians 2:6b:


When harpagmos is understood as something to be selfishly exploited, Christ’s decision does not imply that he gave up his equality with God but that he expressed his equality with God. The pre-existent son regarded equality with God not as excusing him from the task of (redemptive) suffering and death, but actually as uniquely qualifying him for that vocation” (The Letter to the Philippians, G. Walter Hansen, 145, 2009).

 

Commentary:

This commentator communicates that Jesus had equality with God. But this is not stated and introduced as factual. Similarly, most Christians blindly read the doctrine of the Trinity into Scripture (as I did).

 

Jesus has equality with God. Everything God is, Christ is; the equality is in essential characteristics and divine attributes. But Jesus did not consider this equality something to be grasped” (Life Application Commentary, Philippians Colossians and Philemon, Bruce B. Barton, 58, 1995).

 

Commentary:

This commentary, just like the last one, is dominated by Trinitarian presuppositions. 


In either case, the clause comes out very much at the same point. Equality with God is something that was inherent to Christ in his preexistence; but he did not consider Godlikeness to consist in ‘grasping’ or ‘seizing’ or as ‘grasping it to his own advantage,’ which would be the normal expectation of lordly power—and the nadir of selfishness” (Philippians, Gordon D. Fee 94, 1999).

 

Commentary:

Since the Trinitarian doctrine that Jesus is equal to God is widely accepted, there is no outcry from Trinitarians when commentators dramatize God’s Word. The passage doesn’t say, “equality with God is something that was inherent to Christ in his preexistence.

 

Conclusion

 

In the beginning of the review, the importance of considering context was emphasized. Here are some preceding verses:


1 So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, 2 complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:1-4).


The Apostle Paul wrote the book of Philippians from jail. In the first four verses he encourages the Christians in Philippi by pointing them to Jesus Christ. There exists no greater role model on how to live the Christian life, than the man, Jesus Christ.


In verse two, Paul isn’t shy about communicating his desire for these dear believers. He wants them to complete his joy by embracing the mind of Christ, which is characterized by “having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.”

 

Verse three, has a “do not do” command, immediately followed by a “but, do this.”  They are commanded to not act in accordance with “selfish ambition or deceit.” But are to have a humbleness that “count[s] others more significant than yourselves.” This is a high charge. But with Jesus as their role model, they should strive to emulate his remarkable humility.

 

In verse four, he continues his exhortation to be humble by stressing the importance of looking out for “the interests of others.” Naturally, we look out for our own interests. Christ lived His life humbly for others. We need to seek opportunities to help others. This life isn’t about ourselves but about pleasing God.

 

Verse five begins a long sentence that ends with verse seven:
5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.”


Because verse five immediately precedes our verse, and is the start of a long sentence (vs. 5-7), it should be given precedence for an understanding of verse six.

 

In verse five, Paul wants his audience to have “this mind among yourselves.” While the word “this” may point back to previous verses which emphasize humility, this word mostly points forward to the central theme of embracing Christ’s mindset who gave up everything. This mindset “is yours in Christ Jesus.”


This way of thinking is not a one-time commitment, but a present tense, daily mental disposition which comes from submitting to the mind of Christ who lives within us (“which is yours in Christ Jesus”). “6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped.”

 

While existing “in the form of God,” Jesus was in position where apparently He could have violently “robbed”  to attain “equality with God.” Thankfully, He chose not to do this, “but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (v. 8). This is the humble mind that we are to emulate from Jesus Christ.


Christians believe, follow and worship Jesus Christ because He is our Lord, Savior, and the only way to the Father’s house (John 14:1). “ 6 Jesus said, “…I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Have you placed a living faith in Jesus Christ who is not God the Father, but the Son of God?

Thanks for reading this review. May God bless you as you follow His Son to the Father’s house.

 

Biblical Unitarian links for research on Philippians 2:6


https://www.skipmoen.com/2014/10/the-assumed-trinity-a-look-at-philippians-26/

http://www.theonenessofgod.org/in-the-form-of-god-philippians-26/

http://bibleanswerstand.org/philippians.htm

http://www.revisedenglishversion.com/export/tmp_mAZhzXAOGosh/REV_Commentary_Phil_ch2_v6.pdf

http://www.biblicalunitarian.com/verses/philippians-2-6-8

http://www.amatteroftruth.com/a-trinitarian-dilemma-philippians-2-6

http://www.realchrist.info/a9.html

http://www.wrestedscriptures.com/b08trinity/philippians2v6-7.html

http://www.angelfire.com/space/thegospeltruth/trinity/verses/Php2_6-2.html

If you find dead links, have suggested additions, etc., please let me know.

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